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Small classes, mixed results in California; Test scores rise, but bring shortages of teachers, rooms; 'I died and went to heaven'; Critics say reductions are easy, expensive and inefficient


OAKLAND, Calif. -- The nation's most ambitious attempt at reducing early-grade class sizes has lessons for those interested in doing the same thing in Maryland: It has been hugely popular, but so far has produced some serious problems and uncertain benefits.

Since 1996, California has invested $4 billion in limiting kindergarten through third-grade classes to no more than 20 pupils. That has shown tentative signs of raising reading test scores, particularly at lower-performing schools. But it has resulted in a severe shortage of experienced teachers and adequate classroom space.

California's class-size reductions are being closely watched across the country. Urged on by President Clinton, half the states are adding teachers to shrink classes.

In Maryland, class size is a hit-and-miss proposition as county and school officials struggle with crowded schools and impending teacher shortages. But, as elsewhere, the issue is shaping up as a top statewide educational -- and political -- concern.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening pledged in his campaign last fall to hire 1,100 teachers statewide over four years, but he has postponed for a year the first phase of funding. Some school districts -- including Baltimore, Howard, and Montgomery counties -- are pressing ahead with their own class-size reduction plans and clamoring for state funds now.

California's approach to reducing class sizes has been sweeping. "It was amazing," says Gary Yee, a former Oakland school principal. "There was no targeting of kids who can't read or kids who are poor. All boats were to rise together."

Recent visits to urban elementaries here and in Sacramento find both parents and educators who appear to love the results. "Parents can count," says Lynn Piccoli, a state education planner.

Adds Barbara Buswell, a first-grade teacher at Oakland's Hillcrest Elementary: "I think I died and went to heaven."

Makeshift classrooms

But because of space shortages, many of the new, smaller classes have ended up in portable buildings, teachers' lounges, auditoriums, libraries and computer labs.

At Mark Twain Elementary in Sacramento, for example, Principal Douglas Hatley stands on the auditorium stage and surveys the scene below: three classes of first-graders, each class with 20 desks, separated by portable room dividers -- a consequence of a lack of regular classrooms for so many smaller classes.

Among the teachers hired in a mad scramble to fill such classrooms across the state, fully a fourth have no state credentials, and 21 percent are working on emergency permits that allow them to teach while taking education classes. The first year of the program, half the new teachers were inexperienced.

Still, says Don Oliver, principal of Bella Vista Elementary in Oakland: "The 20-to-1 ratio allows far more flexibility and flow and movement. Everything is easier, from grouping students to taking field trips."

At Bella Vista, teacher Carrie Johnston speaks in Spanish and English to a bilingual class housed in a worn portable classroom. In an Oakland tradition, her second-grade class is split. Eleven "early birds" start the school day; nine "late birds" end it. "I can't imagine having a class of 30," she says.

Kimm E. Ward, another Bella Vista teacher, cites an advantage of small classes she says is often overlooked: "Children, too, have a stronger voice."

Since the statewide effort went into effect in fall 1996 -- with funds from budget surpluses -- more than 18,400 new classrooms have opened. Last year, almost a third of California's 6 million public school pupils were in smaller classes.

Compliance has been nearly universal, says Piccoli, in part because the state is giving participating school districts an additional $800 per pupil and in part because of the program's popularity.

The class-size reduction initiative is so politically popular that, in the state's 1996 political campaigns, almost all of the California legislators running for re-election claimed credit for the reductions.

But even so, Gary K. Hart, the state's new education secretary under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, acknowledges that the effort has been "probably too much, too soon."

Some improvement

The first thorough evaluation of the program isn't due until April, but a survey of reading test results from last spring showed better scores for students in smaller classes.

On those tests, 41 percent of second-graders in small classes scored higher than the national mean, compared with 35 percent of second-graders in larger classes (which averaged 29 pupils).

Officials caution, however, that these results are preliminary and do not take into account such factors as poverty and English fluency. (About a quarter of all California pupils are not fluent in English.)

Similar results -- termed "dramatic" by school officials -- were obtained on another standardized test in Oakland, where the percentage of second-graders performing at or above proficiency increased by 18 percentage points last spring, after all of them had been put in smaller classes.

Brian Stecher, a researcher at the Rand Corp., one of a consortium of five organizations studying the California initiative, predicts it will produce higher scores in reading and mathematics. "I almost guarantee the scores will go up," he says. "Class size will get the credit. There are lots of down sides that will be ignored."

These negatives, some of them unanticipated, are easily spotted at various schools in Oakland and Sacramento:

Teachers in the upper elementary grades wonder when the smaller classes will come their way. Many have transferred to the primary grades. "I don't really feel resentment. I feel envy," says Joani Bailey, leading a fifth-grade class of 33 at Lakeview Elementary in Oakland. "I can't see it getting any worse."

Substitute-teacher pools have been drained across California, as subs have moved into full-time teaching. Private preschool and day-care centers also have lost teachers to the public schools. The lack of substitutes, in turn, has made it difficult for principals to plan in-service training: There's no one to cover classes. (Demand has driven substitute pay to as high as $150 a day in some districts.)

Although a quarter of the $4 billion spent on the program in its 2 1/2 years has gone to construction, principals and teachers still complain of a lack of funds for maintenance, supplies, counseling, and art and music classes.

Teachers relieved of crowded classes like the program, but many others complain that the money to pay for it came out of their pockets. Former Gov. Pete Wilson "had a game plan," says Wayne Johnson, vice president of the 285,000-member California Teachers Association, a longtime foe of Wilson's. "To spite us, he took the money off the bargaining table to pay for smaller classes. It was mean-spirited, and now he's taking credit for it."

Joan McRobbie, who follows the class-size issue for WestEd, a federal education laboratory in San Francisco, says reducing class sizes in such urban districts as Oakland has been more difficult "because wealthier districts that already had small classes can essentially pocket the [state] money. The urban systems have to tap into general funds. This creates even more inequity."

In Maryland, where decisions on class size are made at the school district level, a crisis in school crowding has been building for several years. "People don't realize how much the schools are bursting at the seams," says Maxine Woodland, research director of the Maryland State Teachers Association.

In Maryland, elementary classes average 25 pupils, middle school classes about the same and high school classes about 27, according to an MSTA survey last year. But these averages mask huge variations from district to district and school to school -- and even within schools. Prince George's County and Baltimore, two of the state's neediest districts, had the most-crowded schools.

Woodland sees that first-hand. Her son is in a class of 37 in Prince George's County. Her fourth-grade daughter's classroom at Cherokee Lane Elementary in Adelphi has 29 pupils, and in each of her first four years in public school she had a first-year teacher.

"We're on a divergent path," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "We want to reduce class size, and we need more teachers to do it, but the supply is simply not there."

To raise money to build schools and hire teachers, Maryland educators must lobby county officials; county officials, in turn, have to approach the General Assembly and governor at budget time. As the districts compete for limited resources, the class-size issue inevitably becomes politicized.

A good example occurred this year, when Glendening bowed to heavy lobbying from Montgomery County and pledged $1.7 million to hire teachers. Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties immediately cried, "Me, too!"

Baltimore City and most of its suburban counties are in Annapolis lobbying for funds to hire teachers and shrink classes. Rapidly growing Howard County needs 180 new instructors next year, half to accommodate an influx of pupils, half to reduce class size in low-income and low-performing "focus" schools.

About 25 states are cutting class sizes, a dozen governors are on the class-size bandwagon and President Clinton promises to hire 100,000 teachers to shrink average class sizes nationally to 18. (The first installment of federal funding -- $17.5 million -- has just come to Maryland.)

Expensive, inefficient

But some critics say those promoting the size limits are missing an important point: Less is not necessarily more. A more efficient use of the money, they argue, would be to improve the teaching done by those already in classrooms.

"It's easy and very expensive to reduce class size," says Eric Hanushek, an economics and public policy professor at the University of Rochester, "so easy that we might as well run schools out of state capitals and courtrooms."

Hanushek maintains that teacher quality "has 20 times the impact of class size. Teacher quality just swamps all the evidence we have on class size. If I had a choice between a large class with a good teacher and a small class with a lousy one, I'd take the large class any day."

About 1,100 studies have been made of class size, and surprisingly few authoritatively link small classes and improved achievement. Moreover, researchers don't agree on a "magic number" that creates optimum learning.

The effort that most impressed California legislators was Tennessee's Project STAR, a statewide experiment in the mid-1980s. Project STAR got results, but the experiment was conducted under controlled conditions: It shrank classes to an average of 15 pupils, but Tennessee had no shortage of fully credentialed teachers or classroom space.

Hanushek terms Project STAR's results "accidental." He offers a perhaps more telling finding: Eighth-graders in Korea and Japan far outscored their U.S. counterparts in math and science in the recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

The average eighth-grade science class size in those countries was 49 in Korea and 36 in Japan. In the United States, it was 23.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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